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How To Avoid Stereotypes When Writing Diverse Characters

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How To Avoid Stereotypes

If you Googled how to avoid stereotypes, you’ve come to the right place. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll know September 2017 saw the launch of my new B2W book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV and Film (Creative Essentials). Marginalised characters have been a focus of B2W for years, so it made sense that I finally pull all my resources and experiences with this important element together, in one handy guide.

So, from talking to the Bang2writers, a common cry is: ‘I want to write diverse characters … but I’m SCARED of getting it wrong!‘ So, how DO we avoid ‘getting it wrong’? Here’s my top tips:

1) Understand your genre/tone and your audience

This is the thing. If you don’t know what your genre is, or what tone you’re going for – or what your audience wants from it – you’re at a mega disadvantage when you try to create diverse character/s.

The reason for this is obvious: there are certain types of story and audiences that prefer MORE diversity and others that prefer LESS. Now, this may mean the time is ripe for a lady gangster film or a TV series about BAME pensioners … Or it might be that no one is bothered. Which is it to be? How can you find out?

Understanding which is which will help you pinpoint the threats and opportunities that may present themselves to you as you draft. It can mean the difference between creating a tokenistic, try-hard character that feels out of place and one that feels authentic and real!

KEY QUESTION/S: Who is watching this? What do they want from this type of story? Historically, has this genre had much diversity? Does that mean it’s missing, or that this audience doesn’t want it? Who can I ask/ where can I research this?

2) Understand what’s gone before

Once you’ve pinpointed your genre, audience and the type of story you’re going for, NOW you need to do some hardcore research! This will help you avoid stereotypes.

The great thing about movies, TV is that it’s very easy to spot patterns straight away when it comes to ‘types’ of characters. For example, I love the action-adventure genre and spotted the so-called ‘Expendable Hero’ is very often cast as a BAME actor (most often male!). This leads to this character also being called ‘The Sacrificial Minority’. Which is it to be? We have to decide as individual writers how we will tackle this.

It’s important to know the types of character role functions that diverse characters may appear in, historically. Female characters are often mothers and carers; BAME characters may be drug dealers, terrorists or – conversely! – chief of police; LGBT characters are often only in Romantic Comedies, coming out or transition stories; plus disabled characters may be suicidal or missing altogether.

Until recently, it was very unusual for a diverse character to occupy the protagonist’s role, plus sometimes a character’s ‘difference’ would be ‘enough’ to make them the antagonist.

Ugh! No thanks, this is 2017.

KEY QUESTION/S: In the type of story I’m writing, what patterns are there? Which diverse characters appear in which role functions most often? How can I twist this?


3) Find out why people don’t like certain tropes

Tropes get a bum deal in the age of the internet … It’s thought that automatically ‘Tropes = bad’ but this is not true. Fact is, ALL stories have tropes, we need that recognition to figure out the type of story being told.

These are the facts: we LOVE a fresh take on a trope; we hate it when the trope is ‘the same-old, same-old’.

What that means may range from being simply boring, stale and cheesy as hell (people have seen it too many times!), through to stereotypical and downright offensive (which may lead to trouble and finger pointing, especially online). Finding out what tropes are which helps us avoid stereotypes.

It’s important to note that writers don’t have to AGREE with identity politic, or even whether a trope is ‘bad’ or not. However, if people are complaining in large numbers about certain tropes for some reason, it’s a good idea to listen. You don’t even have to stop using it – just twist it and subvert expectations. This actively helps writers avoid CLICHÉ, which has to be good!

KEY QUESTION/S: What do audiences think of these tropes? Is it good/bad? Why? What can I do to bring a fresh take here, or subvert my audience’s expectations?

4) Consult experts

There are some people who say writers should stick to ONLY writing what they know in terms of diversity … But then those same people often say there should be more diversity too. I think we can safely say there are lots of mixed messages flying around!

I say writers can write whatever they want … BUT individuals must do their due diligence. By this, I mean writers should not just consult secondary sources like history books, biographies or museums; nor should they rely on simply their OWN interpretation of  people, events, issues, etc!

When we write a character that is not like ourselves, we should also seek to find at least one person LIKE our character (though preferably two or more). This doesn’t mean hassling that real-life person to read drafts or answer questions either; that is not cool.

However it’s easy now to follow marginalised people online via their own Twitter accounts and blogs, etc. Some will be happy to speak with you, or even offer their own consultancy services. Crowdsourcing answers to your questions via Q&A sites like Quora can also take the emphasis off – people can choose to answer if they want to.

5) Let it go!

Once you’ve exercised your due diligence and tried to ensure your diverse character is an authentic portrayal as possible, that’s all you can do. The bad news is, some people may hate it and tell you you’ve done it ‘wrong’ regardless. Whilst we can do all we can to avoid stereotypes in our writing, not everyone will agree.

But the good news is, if you’ve done your due diligence and consulted people ‘like’ your character, as well as found out what’s gone before and twisted it? Then that’s JUST the haters’ opinion!



6) Identify Representations That Need More Variety

Did you know that approximately 19% of both the US and UK population have a disability of some kind? This means disability affects nearly 1 in 5 people in these populations … Yet we see a complete underrepresentation of this is storytelling, prompting disabled people to call themselves the ‘largest and invisible minority’!

Of the stories that DO include disabled people, nearly all of them focus on wheelchair users, especially with reference to suicide. Politics aside, is it any wonder that audiences are WEARY of this story??

In order to avoid stereotypes, we need more VARIETY. With almost 1 in 5 people living with disability, there’s plenty of story potential out there that could include diverse characters like this.

Good Luck!

This post first appeared on Script Angel. See the original post, HERE.

17761123_10154582559506139_691836916590645085_o Want more about diverse characters?

Then check out my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film, out now from Creative Essentials. Available in paperback and ebook, from Amazon and all good book stores. Click on the link or the pic for more info.

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4 thoughts on “How To Avoid Stereotypes When Writing Diverse Characters”

  1. Reddit is also a useful Q&A website.
    Do you mean that being suicidal is the disability or that the character’s disability causes them to be suicidal?

    1. Disabled characters in stories are frequently suicidal BECAUSE they are disabled (particularly wheelchair users). The notion of leading a full life whilst disabled escapes too many writers

  2. It’s pretty clear your “due diligence” doesn’t count for all that much when you refer to the marginalized people who may still find your depictions offensive as “haters.”

    1. Actually the bit you refer to in the article reads ‘SOME people’, not ‘marginalised people’ – interesting your mind automatically characterises marginalised people as potential haters though. Telling on yourself there.

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